Fitness for Virtue

I was in my senior year of high school, preparing to head off to Notre Dame, when my guidance counselor noticed a problem. I needed five more gym credits to graduate. This was hard to manage with my schedule already packed with musical groups, the debate team, and the school newspaper. In the end, the counselor could only offer me one option. She managed to get me into a weight training course, which existed mainly to allow athletes to train with the football coach during school hours. It was a comical situation. Each day I would file in among the tackles and linebackers, then slip out the back door to go get tacos with my friends. I don’t believe the coach so much as made eye contact with me the whole semester, but I figured we had a tacit understanding. At the conclusion of the course, he awarded me a D (which the school did count as a passing grade) and I rode off into a blue-and-gold sunset. I would not darken a weight room door again for more than twenty years. 

As it happens, I eventually returned to the bench. After the birth of my fifth child, I hit a wall with my physical and mental health, and it became clear to me that I needed to take better care of myself, for my family’s sake especially. I started running, and my heart and brain loved it, but weak runners are famously injury-prone. It turns out that strong muscles are good, and not only for athletes and hormonal teenaged boys. Thus, in the depths of the Covid closures, I found myself heading over to a local gym to learn strength training from a personal trainer who looked about seventeen. 

It was properly humbling. There I was, a gym-class flunkey getting remedial instruction from a kid who seemed to have stepped right out of Coach Altenberg’s weight room. Every time I went I would mince around for a few days afterwards, hardly able to move. It was worth it, though. As I settled into a balanced exercise routine, I started to find that I had more energy and less anxiety. Better still, I found myself running, swimming, kayaking, biking, and shooting hoops with my kids. It felt miraculous. For a decade, I had watched them running and playing while I was perpetually pregnant, nursing, aching, tired. Suddenly I was in stride, racing them up the climbing walls and helping them train for school sports. This summer my eldest son and I learned to scuba dive. 

Good health is a tremendous blessing. It is sad to consider that Americans spend vast sums of money on health care, when quite often modest lifestyle adjustments would yield better health at considerably lower cost. The subject is fraught, though, for understandable reasons. These were explored in a fascinating recent exchange between Allan Porter and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn here at Law and Liberty. The essays make a delightful pairing, because even though the authors are ostensibly at odds, both are keenly attuned to certain important truths about health and modern living. I think both Porter and Lasch-Quinn are correct in their central claims, and in what follows I will attempt a synthesis. 

Even as Western economies tilt us towards obesity, Western culture has embraced fitness with an enthusiasm that sometimes tips into fetishization.

Healthy living is difficult, for reasons that can be readily understood. We live in a society in which calories are plentiful, but most of us are more sedentary than our ancestors, not necessarily because we are lazy, but simply because our responsibilities demand this. Children are no longer expected to chop wood and draw water, but we do make them read books and learn STEM skills. Adults once labored by the sweat of their brow to attain basic sustenance. Today a large share of our workforce is chained to a desk or a cubicle, and even comparatively active jobs may not really involve the sort of steady, regular exertion that our heart and muscles crave. As a mom with young kids, I was certainly on my feet a lot, but my day-to-day responsibilities rarely offered the sort of exertion that would keep me genuinely fit. 

It is incredibly easy for middle-aged Americans to stress-eat our way into diabetes or heart disease. Even children are increasingly doing this. Tasty, affordable, and high-calorie foods meet our gaze every time we step into a grocery store, and these become especially attractive to us when we are lonely, anxious, or overwhelmed, as modern people so often seem to be. Predictably, Americans are extremely prone to maladies of overconsumption: heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

It’s a medical problem, but also a moral one. Temperance and fortitude are moral virtues, and undisciplined physical habits can bleed over into our intellectual, emotional, or spiritual lives. This was the central point of Porter’s original essay. It is also true that a person who neglects her health is diminishing her long-term potential to be a contributing member of her family or society at large. This was the insight that eventually drove me back to the gym. Across multiple pregnancies, it can be very easy for mothers to fall into a kind of reflexive martyrdom. We come to accept as a matter of course that our own bodies will be put through the wringer repeatedly for the sake of the kids. After a while it hardly seems to matter whether we personally feel well. It takes a deliberate effort to step back and realize that the kids will go on needing us long after the physical dependence has ended. Staying fit for our loved ones may really be a serious obligation, especially for people with dependents. 

Porter is alarmed by recent efforts to celebrate obesity and demonize the fit. On these points, I largely agree with him. It seems good overall for models or mannequins to display a wider range of body types, but obesity-pride campaigns may do real harm. Obesity is not healthy, nor should people be encouraged to embrace it as part of their personal identity. Meanwhile, disparaging fitness culture may deter salutary efforts at self-improvement. I laughed heartily at MSNBC’s recent panic attack over hyper-fit fascists. Can it really be such a bad thing if alienated young men are lifting a lot? Maybe that will help them develop the discipline and confidence they need to get a job, make more friends, or start a healthy relationship. 

There is another side to this question, however, that Lasch-Quinn’s essay explores more fully. Even as Western economies tilt us towards obesity, Western culture has embraced fitness with an enthusiasm that sometimes tips into fetishization. For women, the focus has not always been on fitness so much as thinness, and this has given rise to a slew of other maladies. Eating disorders still claim thousands of American lives every year, and cause serious health complications for even more people. Exercise addiction is a real phenomenon too, but even beyond these pathological extremes, uncountable numbers of people feel guilty, insecure, or unlovable, simply because they are not attractive and fit. Though it is impossible to quantify the precise impact, body-image insecurity surely factors in falling marriage rates, the loneliness epidemic, and rising levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide. 

If personal insecurity were merely a consequence of obesity, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Sometimes people should feel bad about themselves. Regret can inspire positive change. Unfortunately, economic factors and cultural pressures don’t necessarily balance out in this case, because several other factors come into play. Our globalized media ensures that unusually beautiful people are flashing before our eyes at almost every hour of the day. Inevitably, this leads people to judge their own reflection against that unreasonable standard. Meanwhile, our free and meritocratic society pushes everyone to carve out a niche for himself, in the workforce and society at large, and it would simply be naïve to doubt that good looks are an asset in this endeavor. This is a hard truth, because good looks are to a great extent part of the lottery of life. Opinions about physical attractiveness are remarkably stable across both time and subcultures, and the evidence suggests that it pays to be pretty, sometimes literally. Physical fitness is at least to some extent under a person’s control, but that may in some cases open the door to false hopes and futile obsessions. A fit body generally is more attractive than the alternative, but few people can exercise their way to the body they really want. Still, it can be tempting to try. Body snobs often make the problem worse by uncharitably assuming that cookies and couch-surfing are the primary difference-makers between themselves and less-beautiful people. 

Gyms are absolutely full of mirrors. They serve a real purpose, but some people sure do love those mirrors.

Even when a moral judgment is reasonably well grounded, it is often unmeasured. It’s easy to judge people for their weight, simply because it is visible. A grossly overweight person probably does, in most instances, have a few undisciplined habits, but how terrible is that in the larger scheme of things? Even if I have two bankruptcies, three felony convictions, and a string of failed marriages and neglected children in my wake, I can still walk through a park or shopping mall without the whole world knowing about it. By contrast, everyone can see if a person is overweight. This is in most cases a sufficient reason for fit people especially to heed Lasch-Quinn’s warnings against uncharitable judgments, deliberately defusing negative mental evaluations of others’ figures. Though it would be difficult to test this theory, I suspect that body insecurity is one significant factor that motivates many people to socialize online, instead of gathering with other humans in the flesh.  Needless to say, this has not been a wholly positive development. It seems reasonable to suppose that people will be happier and more social if they are comfortable in their own skin. 

I love my gym. For a busy mom, it offers a welcome respite. It’s clean, but I am not expected to clean it. It’s pleasantly populated with people, but they don’t lay their problems on me or expect me to solve them. I can sit on the pool deck working, and if I am interrupted, it will only be by a gym employee asking whether they can get me anything from the café. Also, I haven’t forgotten how the gym once supplied invaluable help, at a moment when I needed some help climbing back into my body. 

I’m surely not the only one. Many people could benefit from the services gyms offer. Speaking especially as a woman, I am grateful that I live in a culture that recognizes the value of female fitness. In my twenties, I twice lived in countries (Palestine and Uzbekistan) that embraced very exaggerated ideas about female fragility, discouraging women even from walking a few miles, or carrying a bag full of books. This seemed ridiculous to me even then, but now, having more experience of the stresses of maternity, I get quite angry thinking about the burdens that women in these countries are expected to carry without the benefit of fitness support. Even here, a few decades ago, it would have seemed highly eccentric for a middle-aged mom to learn to lift. Note how, in my initial story, the weight room was almost exclusively full of men, and no one even suggested to me that I might have anything to gain from a strength class except credits. Times have changed, and not for the worse.   

Despite that warm recommendation, I think Lasch-Quinn is clearly correct that gym culture can foster narcissism. Gyms are absolutely full of mirrors. They serve a real purpose: it’s useful to be able to see whether you’re doing a particular exercise with correct form. Some people sure do love those mirrors, though. In un-mirrored portions of the gym walls, one is likely to see pictures of beautiful people, working out under the benevolent eye of personal trainers. The implicit promise is obvious, and in most cases probably false. Gyms are extremely happy to sell their clients personal attention and advice, but nobody helps us to balance our fitness goals against unreasonable expectations, or other life priorities. That might be the service that most of us really need.

In the end though, don’t these reflections simply lead us back to Aristotle? Porter’s initial essay urged readers to exercise discipline and cultivate prudent habits. This is the only reasonable solution to the duck-and-rabbit problem of widespread obesity and body-image insecurity. To escape the conflicting cues of magazine pictures, fitness posters, junk food commercials, and “BODY TYPE: REAL” shirts, we must apply reason to our personal situation and habituate ourselves accordingly. This is what Porter recommends, and in my view, that advice is fundamentally sound. If you are unfit, you should not marinate in self-loathing, but it might be a good idea to try jogging or pick up a kettlebell. Thinking along Aristotelian lines, another point quickly becomes clear: the real goal of an exercise routine should not be a beautiful body, but rather a well-lived life

I think about this every time I walk into the weight room. One nice thing about getting fit at my age is that I feel blessedly free of performance pressure. No one expects trophies from a woman my age, far less sparkly beauty-pageant crowns. I can focus on the prizes that really matter: a sense of well-being, golden memories forged with my kids, and the strength to keep up with the treadmill of daily life. My game is emphatically not zero-sum. More people should play it, even if they have to join a gym.